Original steampunk revisited, a review of Jeter's "Infernal Devices"

This last week, I read the reissue of K. W. Jeter’s classic steampunk novel, Infernal Devices. This is being released in the next month by Angry Robot and I managed to score a review copy from them. Jeter hasn’t written much in the last decade. I’m not sure what he’s been up to and his bio page doesn’t help… The bulk of his work was during the 80’s into the early 90’s. For those unfamiliar with his work, he was pretty influential in his heyday, considered by some to be amongst the cyberpunk authors. I fondly remember reading “Farewell Horizontal” and “The Glass Hammer” when I was a teenager. Jeter has the claim to fame of actually having coined the term, “steampunk,” in a 1987 letter as a kind of a joke given the attention that cyberpunk was getting at the time. Infernal Devices was originally published that same year and is definitely an example of the ur-steampunk novel.

Our protagonist is one George Dower, the inheritor of a watchmaking business from his deceased (and almost entirely absent) father. The period is vaguely Victorian or Edwardian and the setting is London. George isn’t much of a watchmaker. In fact, he seems entirely inept at his inherited trade. His father, though, was a genius with gears. It becomes clear over the course of the novel, Dower Sr. did not limit himself to the creation of watches but created all manner of clockwork mechanisms, both large and small, and his clientele was, shall we say, often questionable. The story opens with Dower the Younger addressing his reader, stating that he is writing his account to attempt to clear his own sullied name and to defend himself, even though he knows it will do little good. Dower describes how a number of odd individuals enmeshed themselves in the mechanism of his life through the vehicle of his father’s devices. For the most part, these devices act as a macguffin, with people chasing hither and yon after one or more of them (though more and more of them come to the forefront over time).

Dower Jr. has the unfortunate quality, so necessary in a protagonist, of not leaving well enough alone and seeking the answer to mysteries. Now, he seeks these largely because of his nearly penniless condition (servicing his father’s lesser creations with the help of Dower Sr’s assistant does not pay well) but, like a character in a horror movie, he always decides that it might be time to give up and quit about two minutes after he has lost the option of doing so.

Overall, I found this to be an enjoyable read and I can see why it gained the good reputation it had when it was originally released. There are mysteries to be investigated, churlish companions, villains, both hidden and obvious, and a heavy dose of clockwork and victoriana. Some may find George’s language, as he narrates the events, both directly and through his breaking of the wall between he and his readers in writing his account, a bit difficult or distracting at first. I enjoyed Iain M. Banks’ “Feersum Endjinn” and Neal Stephenson’s “Anathem,” both with reputations for purposefully difficult language, but I still found Dower’s voice a bit distracting initially. In time, it does grow on the reader and becomes much less of an issue (if any) and it definitely adds atmosphere or tone to the tale.

For my friend’s interested in a steampunk novel, especially one of the original ones (predating the current craze by two decades), this is well worth a read. The book definitely holds up well in comparison to the current steampunk books (in fact, it is better than quite a few of them). You can find it on Amazon as either a paperback or ebook on April 26. I’ve embedded a sample of the first 50 pages below (flash is required for this…).

My next step after this book (with a side jaunt to “The Strange Affair of Spring Heeled Jack”) is Jeter’s sequel to H. G. Wells’ Time Machine, Morlock Night. This is also being reissued this month and I’ve never been able to track down a copy of it before now.